Emoticon Style: Interpreting Differences in Emoticons Across Cultures

Facial expressions can sometimes tell more about the minds of others than words. According to Mehrabian, body language and nonverbal cues are in fact essential in the communication of feelings and attitudes as an expected 93% of the communication is nonverbal.

smiley

In text-based communication, however, these cues are not present and their absence can result in misunderstanding and confusion. Therefore, people started to express their facial expressions pictorially through groupings of symbols, letters, and punctuation; what are popularly referred to as emoticons. We focused on the use of these representative nonverbal cues online content and asked: how do people use emoticons in online social media across cultural boundaries?

Utilizing a near-complete Twitter dataset from 2006 to 2009, which contains information about 54 million users and all of their public posts, we investigated the semantic, cultural, and social aspects of emoticon usage on Twitter.

We found that:

  • There are two kinds of emoticon styles, vertical and horizontal.emoticon_style
  • We identified a wide range of variations, involving more than 14K facial emoticons in tweets. For example, the basic smiley “:)” had several variations (e.g., adding nose, eye brows), which then slightly changed the meaning. Although emoticons are generally used in positive light contexts, the most popular ones were used with both positive (e.g., haha, smile) and negative (e.g., kill, freak) affects.

    Word clouds of the top 50 co-occurring affect words for popular six emoticons

    Word clouds of the top 50 co-occurring affect words for popular six emoticons

  • Emoticons are expressed differently across cultural boundaries defined by geography and language. While Easterners employ a vertical style like “^_^”, Westerners employ a horizontal style like “:-)”. An important factor determining emoticon style is language rather than geography.

    Different emoticon rates of each country for horizontal and vertical style

    Different emoticon rates of each country for horizontal and vertical style

  • Emoticons diffuse through the Twitter friendship network. Twitter users may influence their friends to adopt particular styles of emoticons especially for less popular emoticons like “:P”‘, “^^”, and “T_T”. The diffusion occurs almost entirely between people from similar cultural backgrounds.

What is your favorite emoticon? What kinds of words do you use with emoticons?

As socio-cultural norms, emoticons not only express specific emotions they may also show your identity and cultural backgrounds.

For more detail, see our full paper, Emoticon Style: Interpreting Differences in Emoticons Across Cultures.

Jaram Park, Graduate School of Culture Technology, KAIST
Vladimir Barash, Morningside Analytics
Clay Fink, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
Meeyoung Cha, Graduate School of Culture Technology, KAIST

One thought on “Emoticon Style: Interpreting Differences in Emoticons Across Cultures

  1. I think this is a good initial work on the study of emoticons and as a suggestion, authors could compute which terms increase or decrease the likelihood of a term being referred in a tweet. It would be interesting to find terms which decrease the likelihood of a emoticon being used. This can be computed by a metric such as the ‘lift’ measure from association rule mining. Also, can authors find evidences of sarcasm or irony by looking both at terms and emotions at the same time?

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